The women in these stories live lives of privilege and of poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail. A pair of sisters, grown now, have been inseparable ever since they were abducted together as children, and must negotiate the marriage of one of them. A woman married to a twin pretends not to realize when her husband and his brother impersonate each other. A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an overzealous customer. A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind. From a girls’ fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other, Gay delivers a wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America reminiscent of Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July.
Difficult Women is Roxane Gay’s newest publication. I’ve been looking forward to this short story collection for quite some time, because I’d only read her nonfiction (Bad Feminist) and was interested in how good a fiction writer she was, and because I absolutely adore short stories. So, please keep in mind that I was pretty much destined to love this book.
Gay dedicates the book to ‘difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature’. However, in my mind, this is less about difficult women and more about difficult circumstances that women find themselves in. Love in all its permutations is discussed – particularly ugly sorts of love. Motherhood, sex, race, and body image are all themes that crop up again and again throughout this collection, but without feeling repetitive.
Because this is a short story collection, that means that there will be some stories that are stronger than others. Some of the stories that I particularly loved included Water, All Its Weight, Difficult Women, Requiem for a Glass Heart and I am a Knife. Difficult Women, the titular story, was probably my favourite. It ends:
Death makes them more interesting. Death makes them more beautiful. It’s something about their bodies on display in final repose – eyes wide open, lips blue, limbs stiff, skin cold. Finally, it might be said, they are at peace.
This particular quote really reminded me of an article I read about America’s Next Top Model, and this one photoshoot called ‘Heads on Display’:
I can’t find the article at the moment, but it made a really good point about women being trophies mounted on a wall for men to display – especially dead women. If anyone knows of the article/discussion I’m talking about, please link me! I’d love to add it into this post.
Like many of Gay’s books, I’m going to give a blanket content warning for violence against women, including young girls, as well as potentially distressing situations such as abortion and prostitution. These stories are by no means easy. However, I do think that they are important.
This has thoroughly convinced me that Roxane Gay is not just a fantastic woman, but one who can truly write. I’ve just downloaded An Untamed State and I cannot wait to dive in.
NB: book by an author of colour for Diversity Bingo 2017.